Kohler Co. Executive Chairman Herbert Vollrath Kohler, Jr. passed away on Sept. 3, 2022, in Kohler, Wisconsin. He was 83. His ideas and hands-on leadership transformed the plumbing products manufacturer founded by his grandfather into a global and diverse family of businesses synonymous with unmatched quality, creativity and bold innovation. He put his beloved home state of Wisconsin on the map as a global golf destination culminating with the Ryder Cup in 2021.
Herb Kohler’s personal mission was to create delight. For him, there was no halfway. To warrant the “KOHLER” nameplate, a product had to be more than durable, functional and attractive. It had to be joyful and memorable.
“His zest for life, adventure and impact inspires all of us. We traveled together, celebrated together, and worked together. He was all in, all the time, leaving an indelible mark on how we live our lives today and carry on his legacy,” said his family.
He was admired by many as an accomplished, dynamic leader; independent-minded entrepreneur; courageous innovator; and passionate creative. Herb, more than anyone, lived and breathed Kohler Co.’s mission of providing customers with gracious living each day. He was a big personality who was steadfast in guiding Kohler associates in the relentless pursuit of the company mission, and he took immense joy in witnessing his customers’ delight firsthand.
“If I sell you a bathtub, there has to be something about it that gives you pleasure not only at the time of the transaction. Years later, we want you to think this is one of the best buys of your life,” he once said in an interview. “The same applies with everything we provide – an engine, generator, toilet, table, hotel room, spa service, golf course, you name it. If you think about it five years later and, inwardly or outwardly, it makes you smile and we can do this consistently, then we’re living up to our mission.”
Herb Kohler – who preferred to use his first name but was so respected by Kohler Co. associates who addressed him as “HVK” or “Mr. Kohler” – was born in Chicago on Feb. 20, 1939. His father Herbert V. Kohler, Sr., son of Kohler Co. founder John Michael Kohler, served as Board Chairman and CEO of Kohler Co. from 1940 until his death in 1968. His mother Ruth De Young Kohler was a historian and former women’s editor of the Chicago Tribune.
Herb was educated at the Kohler schools in Kohler, Wis., and at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn. As a young man, he spent many summers as a laborer on the Kohler farms and in most of the manufacturing divisions of Kohler Co. After serving with the U.S. Army Reserve, studying at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, and launching a brief acting career at Knox College in Illinois, he completed his education at Yale University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial administration in 1965.
He rejoined Kohler Co. full-time as an R&D technician shortly after graduation. He became a Director of the company in 1967, and when his father died a year later, he became Vice President of Operations. He was named Executive Vice President in 1971, was elected Chairman of the Board and CEO in 1972, and President of the Company in 1974 – at the age of 35. In 2015, he became the company’s Executive Chairman, with son David taking the helm as President and CEO. He served Kohler Co. for 61 years.
The family plans to host a private service. At a date to be determined, Kohler Co. will host a tribute to Herb Kohler for associates, past and present.
Coming soon is a tribute website to learn more about Herb Kohler’s countless contributions, his dynamic life, business impact and well-deserved accolades. Information regarding ways to honor his memory will be detailed on the website.